Brittany Pollack and Peter Walker in Justin Peck's New Blood Photo Paul Kolnik

Brittany Pollack and Peter Walker in Justin Peck’s New Blood
Photo Paul Kolnik

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
September 30 & October 16, 2015

Jerry Hochman

New ballets are the life blood of a ballet company, and it’s been said that without a continuing infusion of “relevant” contemporary ballets the art form will wither and die. I doubt it. But there is no question that new creations add at least a semblance of growth and change, and perhaps evolution, to a company’s repertoire.

New York City Ballet has long been a leader in presenting new ballets, at least in part so as not to be seen as bound by its Balanchine/Robbins heritage. For its Fall 2015 season, which has otherwise been uncharacteristically lackluster, the company presented a quintet of new works, four of which premiered at its Fall Gala on September 30, with one more on October 8.

The strangest is the last, Kim Brandstrup’s Jeux. New pieces by emerging choreographers Myles Thatcher and Robert Binet show promise. But the most entertaining, if for no other reason than that they’re terrifically exciting to watch, are those by NYCB corps member Troy Schumacher, and company Resident Choreographer Justin Peck. The latter is titled New Blood, which, perhaps unintentionally, is an apt characterization of Ballet Master-in-Chief Peter Martins’ attempt to energize the repertoire.

Going back to the September 30 gala, at long last its fashion component must be acknowledged as a resounding success. For several years, NYCB has used haute couture as a lure to attract well-heeled patrons. This year the synergy between the fashion designers and the choreographers has been unusually apparent, and the result unusually successful. Unlike some famous designers who have attempted to stylistically dominate the ballets they were costuming, the designers for this gala’s four world premieres worked within each ballets’ visual themes, and in three of them, their creations markedly enhanced the overall presentation. For Thatcher’s Polaris, Zuhair Murad created glittering but tasteful costumes evocative of stars in the night sky. The multicolored costumes by Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida for Common Ground are as vigorously playful and free-spirited as Schumacher’s choreography. And Hanako Maeda’s designs for The Blue of Distance were intriguing and classic in their simplicity, complementing the same qualities in Binet’s ballet.

With New Blood, Peck continues his visually stimulating and arrestingly different series of ballets. He makes music come to life in interesting ways. Here, the concept is simple: dancers sequentially animate others. At the outset, most lie on the floor, and are brought to ‘dancing life’ by some force transmitted by an already ‘awakened’ dancer. Thereafter they take turns invigorating and providing sequential ‘new blood’ to a series of duets that together comprise the bulk of the dance: dancers ‘A’ and ‘B’ are partnered; then ‘C’ replaces ‘A’, resulting in a ‘B’ and ‘C’ duet; and so on through the thirteen dancer cast. What makes the piece entertaining is its choreographic variety and speed. Although each duet is keyed to the rapid pace of Steve Reich’s Variations for Vibes, Piano and Strings, each pairing is distinctive, complex, and clever – a non-stop movement feast for the eyes. I particularly enjoyed that by Georgina Pazcoguin and Meagan Mann because it was less frenetic than the others, but each dancer delivered a performance infused with vitality.

I reacted more positively to the piece at its premiere than I did on second view, perhaps because I saw the speed overwhelm choreographic clarity. And the garish make-up on some of the dancers detracted from the visual impression, making the dancers look like alien dancing life forms. That the dance doesn’t end in any discernable way doesn’t help. Nevertheless, Peck’s ballet is an action-packed audience-pleasing success.

New York City Ballet in Troy Schumacher's Common Ground Photo Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet in Troy Schumacher’s Common Ground
Photo Paul Kolnik

Like New Blood, Schumacher’s Common Ground is virtually non-stop action, but the frenzy is tempered by an overriding intentional connection between visual art (as in painting) and kinetic art (as in movement), as well as by a magnificently conceived and executed central pas de deux. It’s far superior to Schumacher’s previous NYCB effort last year.

On first view, Common Ground looks like a gathering of hyperactive teenagers in a playground. But this is an artsy playground awash in kaleidoscopic color – playful costuming and multi-colored light projected against the bare rear stage wall. It’s further enhanced by the shading and texture in the accompanying commissioned score by Ellis Ludwig-Leone, a contemporary composer with whom Schumacher has worked previously. And I came to see the dancers, at least in part, as energized color droplets randomly tossed upon the bare stage floor (and upon which some dancers adhere when finally ‘fixed’ to the canvas).

But Common Ground is more than just an agglomeration of dancing paint pigment. Many of the dancers have distinctive kinetic personalities (particularly Anthony Huxley and a sparkling Alexa Maxwell, who joined the company only two years ago after a one year stint as an apprentice), and Schumacher slows the pace to provide for a gentle and soaring ‘getting-to-know-you’ pas de deux for Ashley Laracey and Amar Ramasar. Laracey’s performances have been a highlight of this season, and Schumacher captures both her outer vulnerability and her steel core.

Most viewers I informally canvased either emphatically like or emphatically dislike Brandstrup’s Jeux. I emphatically occupy a middle ground. It’s an unusual piece that demonstrates obvious choreographic skill and significant original thought, but is so opaque and intellectually rigorous that no matter how good the choreography and execution, it can leave an audience not only confused, but cold.

Brandstrup is the most experienced of the five new work choreographers. Born in Denmark, he has worked extensively in Britain and throughout Europe, creating highly regarded dances for many companies. This is his first piece for an American dance company, and although not entirely successful, it’s an auspicious debut.

In Jeux, Brandstrup’s broad subject, not surprisingly, is the ‘games people play’. His universe is the cavern of the human mind within which the mental processes of envy, depression, attraction and obsession become cerebral hoops that must be jumped through before deciding on a mate (for the moment or longer). It sounds interesting, but as conceived, it is dry and emotionless.

Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar with Sara Mearns in Kim Brandstrup's Jeux Photo Paul Kolnik

Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar with Sara Mearns in Kim Brandstrup’s Jeux
Photo Paul Kolnik

The piece is choreographed to Debussy’s 1913 orchestral work of the same name, to which Nijinksy choreographed a largely forgotten ballet. It opens with the ballet’s protagonist, Sara Mearns, on a dark stage lit by a lone dismal hanging lightbulb, with other dancers in the piece assembled somewhat menacingly behind her. The set is a barren space that looks like an empty garage, complete with a single pillar, which perhaps provides some measure of stage depth. Wearing an off-the-shoulder blue dress that one might wear for a night on the town, Mearns is separate but not far from the other dancers, the men wearing business attire, the women in dresses. She interacts with them but at the same time maintains some emotional distance. And Mearns is blindfolded. What she ‘sees’ are her mind’s inventions; human shadows that direct her through her mental games.

Mearns ‘sees’ what she lacks, particularly the romantic relationship between Sterling Hyltin and Ramasar, captured in soaring duets in which Hyltin appears to float high over Ramasar’s head like an apparition. At one point the lighting is such that Hyltin and Ramasar’s bodies produce shadows projected against the back stage wall while Mearns retreats – enlarging the couple’s image in her mind but at the same time diminishing the size of her own. Brilliant stagecraft, which also draws on Bradstrup’s cinematic experience.

But just when you think you have his ideas figured out, Bradstrup inserts images that confound. At one point, a T-shirted dancer, Adrian Danchig-Waring, traverses the stage bouncing a medium-sized rubber ball. After some limited interaction with Mearns, she ignores him. Toward the end of the piece, their roles are reversed: she bounces the ball and he’s blindfolded. And the ballet ends, to his and the audience’s surprise, with her falling for him – literally, no longer preoccupied with (or sufficiently corrupted by) her mind’s avatars. Perhaps the ball bouncing is another metaphoric game, with the Danchig-Waring character seemingly having endured the same thought processes as Mearns’s character except the audience doesn’t get to see it, and after both sets of mental processes play out, they yield to each other. Or perhaps it’s simply a choreographic nod to the Nijinksy original, replacing tennis balls with a bouncing ball. And perhaps Danchig-Waring’s character wears a T-shirt to make him ‘real’. The problem is that despite its intelligence, superb choreography for Hyltin and Ramasar, and a fine, albeit stoic, performance by Mearns, by the time the piece ends, some of the audience no longer cares.

Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle in Robert Binet's The Blue of Distance Photo Paul Kolnik

Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle in Robert Binet’s The Blue of Distance
Photo Paul Kolnik

Polaris and The Blue of Distance are not without merit or substance, but compared to the other new works, they’re appetizers. Polaris is a simple piece distinguished by its cute ending. Tiler Peck is first seen within a cone of light on an otherwise dark stage, staring into space and reaching out as if attempting to capture or embrace something. The other seven dancers emerge from an upstage umbra, and go about their relatively mundane choreographic business. Peck joins them from time to time, but her character is a would-be prodigal daughter – part of the group one moment; distancing from it the next, dreaming of something better, or at least different. At the end, her partner Craig Hall emerges from the wings and corrals her back into the fold. Thatcher, a member of San Francisco Ballet’s corps, has obvious capability, but here, he had insufficient opportunity to stretch his creative wings.

Binet, who has extensive choreographic roots in Europe, is presently the Choreographic Associate of the National Ballet of Canada. His experience shows, and he brings a welcome sense of sophistication and distinctive stagecraft to his choreography. In The Blue of Distance, he segregates and separately stages movement qualities into varying linear forms, in the process (and abetted by the music – two movements from Ravel’s suite, Miroirs) imbuing the ballet with an overall edge of melancholy and loss. Though not particularly memorable, it’s an intriguing piece.

The gala concluded with Martins’s Thou Swell, a salute to the music of Richard Rodgers, and the brief return of Robert Fairchild, who took a night off from his starring role in Broadway’s An American in Paris. It was great fun.